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Fighting AIDS in Nigeria:  The Catholic Church - 2002-06-25

The catholic church in Nigeria has joined the campaign to stem the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS. A three-day seminar on HIV/AIDS organized by the church was held in Abuja last weekend.

The well-attended forum was the first mass campaign against HIV/AIDS by the catholic church in Nigeria.Observers say the church had been rather passive or at best half-hearted in the fight against the disease.As a result of the tremendous influence of religious groups in Nigeria,AIDS campaigners and activists have whole-heatedly welcomed the involvement of the catholic church,one of the largest and respected churches in Nigeria.

Professor Ibironke Akinsete,the presidential adviser on HIV/AIDS also heads the national HIV/AIDS. He says "the church can participate in prevention, the church can participate in counseling, the church can participate in care and support, the church can participate in orphan care; so many aspects; even HIV testing; the church can do so much and I believe this is one of the major advances we are making in Nigeria. If the church together with other faith-based organizations take on this issue we will see a difference." Breaking the culture of silence and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS is one area the catholic church hopes to assist. The archbishop of Abuja Dr.John Onaiyekan says the peculiar nature of the church puts it in a unique position to help counsel those suffering from HIV/AIDS. He says "we think we have some comparative advantages of service that we can render. Certain things we can do better than government, better than NGOs.I give for example the whole area of stigmatization. Once again the church imbibes the need to dissociate AIDS from moral guilt,it becomes easy for us to treat HIV positive people as simply people who have a medical condition and who need assistance. And I think the church is in a better position to do that." The Director of Public Health, Federal Ministry of Health, Dr.Abimbola Asaba also gave an insight into the latest trends in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Nigeria. He says "it is estimated that about 1.2 million Nigerians had developed AIDS by the end of year 2001. Based on population estimates and the HIV prevalence rate,we estimated the size of the infected population in Nigeria.In 1990 around half a million were infected with HIV/AIDS,by the year 2000 this has increased to 3.26 million and by 2005 it is estimated that over 4 million Nigerians will be HIV positive.The epidemic has reached a point where it is estimated that one person dies of AIDS every two minutes. By the end of year 2001 it estimated that 1.3 million Nigerians would have died of AIDS since the start of the epidemic and by 2005 an additional one million might die if nothing is done." Nigeria under President Olusegun Obasanjo has been praised for its strong commitment to the HIV/AIDS campaign. According to the country representative of the United Nations AIDS Control Program Dr.Berhe Costantinos, Nigeria stands to benefit tremendously from a new international support program. "The international donor community is supporting the government of Nigeria and the people of Nigeria in an unprecedented way. As you know,President Obasanjo has launched a major campaign on HIV/AIDS.He has provided a lot of money probably one of the highest contributions from a government. And the international community is matching that by almost $500 million over the next three years. This is the largest public sector program in the world now." Observers say the fight against HIV/AIDS in Nigeria has entered a new phase. Some campaigners are already beginning to feel confident that new infection rates will fall drastically in the near future. However they say a lot depends on the willingness of other religious groups to be part of the crusade. As a further demonstration of its seriousness in combating HIV/AIDS,the catholic church says it will soon come out with an action program to tackle the epidemic.